Learning Activity #1: 12-Tone

Educational Focus

Students apply their learning about 12-tone composition by writing and performing compositions in this genre.


Manuscript and pencils or access to music notation software

Note: Students should have done Guided Listening Activity # 1, 12-tone: No Resting Place.

Lesson Map

I. Compose a Row

  • Share the following:

Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg created a system of composition that favours no one musical note over another. Much of music has a central key, tone or home pitch. By contrast, Schoenberg's 12-tone music is atonal, in no specific key, and has no home note. His 12-tone method of composition makes sure that each of the 12 different semitones is used once before any note is repeated. As you learned in Guided Listening # 1, Canadian composer John Weinzweig used this method too as a tool for finding melodic material.

  • Have students try making different orderings of the 12 semitones exploring the sound of different orders and different rhythms.
  • Students should choose a favourite order, called the "row".

II. Experiment with the Row

  • Using the row they have composed, students now create a solo by applying some of the allowable transformations:
    • Retrograde - the row backwards
    • Inversion - starting on the same note and inverting the distance between each note (i.e. if the second note is two semitones above the first then the inversion will be two semitones below the first note)
    • Retrograde inversion - a combination of the first two.

III. Perform and Analyze

  • Have a performance of each 12-tone composition.
  • Discuss, using the following prompts:
    • Why do these compositions sound so different than most music even though they use the same notes?
    • Did you like some of the melodies and sounds you heard? Why?
    • How might this type of experimentation help you find interesting, original melodies?
    • What role does predictability play in listening to music? How is it good? How might it be not so good?

IV. Extend

  • In pairs, students can experiment with writing short 16 measure duets using a tone row and its transformations.
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